From Idealists to Apologists…and Back Again?

Hundreds of fresh-faced students across the country graduate every year from environmental or sustainable development programs. Many of them are good enough to immediately find jobs in their field. Not too long after they start working for a company, the government, a consulting firm, or a non-profit, they realize that making change is not always easy.

In university, we tackle big challenges with innovative solutions. Economic theory, stakeholder collaboration, moral reasoning, and assumptions win the day. So when we graduate, why shouldn’t we be able to implement those solutions?

"When we get jobs we can influence the city to require smart growth and better transit. We can develop water conservation programs so our consumption figures drop considerably. We can make the business case so our oil company pursues renewable energy."

We wear our idealism like a badge during our first days of employment. We don’t evoke invincibility, rather a determination that shouts "there are no obstacles too big." But competing interests, business practicalities, and other people get in the way. We figure that perseverance will help us clear these hurdles.

Things quickly change. The idealism fades. In the face of not being able to fully address the big items, we furtively work for little victories, like purchasing 100-percent recycled paper. Worse, we become apologists for business as usual.

We’re all guilty of it at some point in our career. We throw our hands up and say "That’s just the way it’s done. We need to use a lot of water to extract the oil. We’re making strides to reduce our pollution but our production has gone up. The price of water is so low, it’s not worth chasing after reductions. It’s less expensive to pay the penalty than to implement a new plan that reduces non-compliance. Most of our spills are just a couple of gallons." Sometimes we can’t even believe it’s coming out of our own mouths. Things aren’t turning out exactly as we planned.

It’s demoralizing to have to tow the party line so the organization doesn’t look bad. We know what’s possible. We know what’s wrong. But we’re trapped. To live with ourselves we justify inaction. We make excuses. We somehow convince ourselves that our organizations are doing better than can be expected, even though we know they could do much, much more to reduce environmental impacts. Or we become frustrated. And that can be toxic.

The options are to fight for what’s right, or move to an organization that reflects our personal values. If we can find jobs where we don’t have to make excuses for our organizations’ performance, then we’ll be a little less sheepish at dinner parties and sleep a little more soundly. But most of the time, the fight is worth it.

About the Author

Mark Brownlie is chief executive of Responsibility Matters Inc., a Calgary-based advisory firm assisting companies and non-profits with sustainability strategies and communications.

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